Liverpool Telescope in supernova discovery
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08 September 2011
Astronomers recently discovered a bright supernova, otherwise known as an exploding star, and with scientists stating it is the nearest of its type observed for 40 years, the Liverpool Telescope was acknowledged for its rapid response time.
Astronomers around the world scrambled to get follow up images and data and among the first to respond, was the robotic 2m Liverpool Telescope (LT), located in the Canary Islands and owned and operated by LJMU's Astrophysics Research Institute.
The supernova was spotted in the Pinwheel Galaxy, M101, a spiral galaxy a mere 21 million light years away, lying in the famous constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major).
Scientists from the University of Oxford made the discovery with their colleagues from the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) collaboration, using a robotic telescope in California in the United States.
Oxford team leader, Dr Mark Sullivan, triggered the LT observations as part of a collaboration between LJMU and Oxford. After receiving the email alert he used the LT's Phase 2 User Interface on his laptop to submit a set of observations for consideration by the LT's autonomous robotic scheduler. Minutes afterwards, the scheduler decided by itself to perform these observations, swinging the telescope around to use FRODOspec to obtain spectra of the supernova. An automatic preliminary reduction of the data became available on the LT web site.
LJMU Astronomer David Bersier grabbed the spectrum and applied the final stages of the reduction needed to properly characterise the supernova. Under an hour after receiving the email alert, Mark had his data. This enabled him and others to determine the supernova was a type Ia.
Dr Sullivan said that the LT's rapid-response capability enabled 'probably the earliest SN Ia spectrum ever taken'.
David Bersier added: "It took about three hours to go from the discovery of the supernova candidate by a computer in California to establishing the true nature of this explosion. This is because a telescope like the LT is the ideal machine to respond to events like supernovae that happen without warning."
The team will be watching carefully over the next few weeks, and hope to use NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study the supernova's chemistry and physics.The scientists in the Palomar Transient Factory have discovered more than 1,000 supernovae since it started operating in 2008, but they believe this could be their most significant discovery yet. The last time a supernova of this sort occurred so close was in 1972.
"Before that, you'd have to go back to 1937, 1898, and 1572 to find more nearby Type 1a supernovae,' said Professor Peter Nugent, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the USA. 'Observing PTF 11kly unfold should be a wild ride. It is an instant cosmic classic."
The Palomar Transient Factory is a wide-field survey operated at the Palomar Observatory by the California Institute of Technology on behalf of a worldwide consortium of partner institutions. Collaborating institutions are Caltech, Columbia University, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UC Berkeley, University of Oxford, and the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel).
Dr Sullivan added: "The most exciting thing is that this is what's known as a type 1a supernova - the kind we use to measure the expansion of the Universe. Seeing one explode so close by allows us to study these events in unprecedented detail."
The supernova, dubbed PTF11kly, is still getting brighter, and the team's best guess is that it might even be visible with good binoculars in ten day's time, appearing brighter than any other supernova of its type in the last 40 years.
Further information about the Liverpool Telescope is available at: http://www.astro.ljmu.ac.uk/about/ltproject.shtml
Image used: D. Andrew Howell & BJ Fulton (LCOGT) et al., Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope